Shadow Road by Nicole DragonBeck

For Shaina Clark. May you find reasons to smile abound.

 

Although he had spent every day of his childhood being pampered and spoiled to within an inch of his life, he was still one of the most melancholic individuals his associates had ever encountered.

No, Judianna thought, not pampered. Groomed. Yes, groomed from before he could walk. Though Mage Doneron had told her to study all faces present, Judianna could not help but watch golden-haired Prince Quiteas brood at one corner of the triangular table.

It had been a long time since she had seen him this close and he did not remember her face. Quiteas sat ramrod straight yet still seemed to slump in the angular chair with a veiled expression and pale eyes that missed nothing and gave away less. The prince was not dissimilar in physical appearance to the boy Judianna had known so many years ago, but other than that, he was a different person.

The armored bulk that was General Armareus occupied the second corner. The silver-robed stick figure of High Mage Doneron sat at the third. Judianna was a fourth of the Mage’s retinue. The General had a full dozen men with him, but only four were allowed at the table. Quiteas had one accompanying him, a slim figure bowed beneath a hooded robe. As such, his corner of the table looked somewhat desolate.

“Your majesty,” Doneron the Mage said, his voice smoothed by eons of chanting spells. “You cannot wait any longer. A decision must be made.”

“And I say you make it,” Quiteas said. Judianna didn’t believe it possible, but his mouth turned down even further. “It means nothing to me.”

The General cleared his throat. Had Quiteas been an underling, Judianna had no doubt the General’s meaty fist would have been around his throat by now. As it was, the General merely raised his hand in a conciliatory gesture.

“My prince,” he began. “The man who is chosen to take the place of the late Lord Sardaen must be someone trustworthy. The new Lord inherits all of the Harmand Way. I should not need to remind you that the Way is a very strategic point and the surrounding lands very productive.”

“I know my history,” Quiteas sighed a world weary sigh. “And I trust the both of you to choose wisely.”

“Traditionally, it has been the monarch who…” Mage Doneron began.

Quiteas silenced him by rising. The shadow by his side rose as well. Judianna kept her head down, though her eyes remained fixed on the prince. “Traditions come and go. You make your choice and I will speak the words if it will make you happy.”

“I don’t think your father would be happy to hear his son make a mime of the throne,” General Armareus.

“If my father has a problem with my ruling, I look forward to hearing from him in person.”

Prince Quiteas left the Council room frozen and fragile in the wake of his parting statement.

“It’s just as well you didn’t bring up his coronation again,” Armareus said with a glance at the empty chair.

Doneron poked at his face with long fingers as though to iron out the lines in his skin. “I wish the boy would just accept his father’s demise, come to terms with it and move on. He cannot be prince forever.”

“He is a stubborn boy,” the Armareus said, his armor creaking as he stood. “Give him time.”

“It has been a full seven years,” Doneron said, exasperation leaking from every syllable. “I do not know how to make him understand that when one travels the Shadow Road, they do not return and not even a Mage can make it so.”

“He will not give up on the King,” Armareus said, his men falling into place behind him. “It may be us who will be made to understand that we will be calling him ‘prince’ until he follows his father’s steps on the Shadow Road.”

Mage Doneron grunted in reply and it was long moments before he rose. Judianna rose with him and took up the rear of his procession, folding her hands serenely across her chest. Her lilac robe trailed long behind her, as did the robes of those in front of her. In this way, they were always evenly spaced as they walked. They traipsed along, their footsteps lost in majestic halls where only Mage Doneron seemed at ease among the towering columns and gilded glass windows.

As they strode from patterned tiles to snow white marble marked only by the shadow of statues, a messenger hurried up to Doneron and the entire procession halted. Hurried words were exchanged and the Mage nodded. The messenger disappeared and Doneron beckoned Judianna forward. He pulled a dark bottle from his robes and handed it to her.

“I had meant to give this to Prince Quiteas, but it slipped my mind. Please deliver it forthwith.”

Judianna nodded and took the bottle. Despite having learned the castle passages from schematics until she could walk them blindfolded, she had never actually trespassed within the prince’s personal wing. A nervous flutter made her stomach clench. She stood without the huge pair of black doors and knocked.

A moment later the left door opened and the robed figure that had shadowed the prince stood on the other side. The hood had fallen back to reveal a pale face, soft brown hair and pointed ears. Forest green eyes flecked with gold appraised Judianna and a slim hand came out to silently request the bottle.

Judianna gave the elf the bottle, bowed her head and turned away as the door closed. She had barely started down the hall when the door was thrown open and the prince’s voice yelled at her, gloomy even in wrath.

“Mage, what is the meaning of…oh, I beg your pardon. I thought you were Doneron.”

“He sent me in his stead,” Judianna said, bowing her head. “Is something amiss?”

“Yes!” Quiteas said, waving the bottle. “This is not what I asked for.”

“I’m sorry,” Judianna said, reaching for the bottle. “I will return it…”

“No,” Quiteas sighed. “No, that will not do.”

Judianna stood silent, puzzled by his vacillations. The prince deigned to explain himself, for what reason Judianna couldn’t say.

“I have had increasing trouble sleeping of late, and I asked the Mage for a draught to ease my nerves. This…this is milk and honey. I used to drink it as a boy,” Quiteas said. “I wager it is his way of rebuking me. Tell me, do you think he is right to tell me to accept that my father is forever gone down the Shadow Road?”

The question threw Judianna further off guard and she stammered. “I…I think the High Mage is very wise and has your wellbeing at heart, your Majesty.”

“That is not an answer,” the prince leaned against the wall, sad eyes studying her. “I saw you in the Council room, attending Doneron. You were almost as watchful as he. You seem familiar. I think perhaps I might have known you, a long time ago.”

Judianna contemplated how to answer the unasked question. She chose the forthright response. “As children we played in the halls whenever you could get away from hawking or divination, your least favorite lessons.”

“Judianna!” Recognition dawned in the prince’s eyes, and his frown lifted a little though he did not smile. “I thought you had left the palace some time past.”

“It was judged I had some magical potential. Doneron took me to apprentice,” Judianna said. “I have been here, but keeping to corners and shadows.”

“Doneron is teaching you to see and not be seen. I remember those lessons.”

“I find it quite useful. Observing is the easiest way to learn things,” Judianna said with a smile. “Words and eyes may lie, but actions cannot be other than what they are.”

“Indeed,” Quiteas said. “Doneron’s pupil to the heart. Come. Join me and tell me of what has transpired since we last spoke.”

He held open the door to his suite. Judianna drifted inside. Her eyes immediately went to the figure standing at the window. The elf had discarded the cloak and wore deep green satin trousers and tunic. Quiteas nodded in his direction.

“This is Masatri. He was bound to my father by some ancient, forgotten pact and he, like everyone else, assumes that he is now bound to me. No matter how I try to dissuade him, he insists on following me everywhere.”

The elf bowed, bronze highlights gleaming in his hair. “Men are strange creatures with short lives and shorter memories, but this pact is not something to take lightly despite His majesty’s obvious discomfit.”

“Don’t mind him. He is very sociable though he doesn’t say much. Come, sit.”

Quiteas gestured toward the sitting-place under a spread of windows. Outside the sky was grey and a stiff wind pulled at the trees, sending showers of leaves swirling about like dervishes. The three sat on cushioned lounges. Masatri brought iced lemon water, candied fruit and spicy biscuits. Quiteas ate with dainty, solemn bites. The elf filled a plate and ate with gusto. Judianna nibbled on a biscuit and spoke between bites.

“I learned history, language, simple sorcery and enchantment. Now, I’m learning the finer points of diplomacy and intrigue in preparation for accompanying Doneron to the courts of Glorina, Holvard, Athmar, Yoland and Itread to learn their dispositions and intentions to this kingdom.”

“No doubt you will do wonderfully and come back to lecture me on international politics as Doneron does.” Quiteas could have been making a joke but his dolorous expression did not change.

“No, I think he enjoys that too much to delegate that task,” Judianna said.

“Truer words were never spoken,” Quiteas said, rubbing his chin and gazing at nothing with his pale eyes.

It would be easier to judge what a painting was thinking than what thoughts lay behind the prince’s triste expression. Judianna thought that he might be handsome if he smiled and let the light touch his eyes. “Why do I never see you smile anymore, Prince Quiteas?”

“Perhaps you are not looking hard enough.”

“I do not think that is the reason, for your entire court would be as unobservant as I.” Judianna paused. “And yet, I recall you were quite gay as a boy.”

“Children have the freedom to be carefree,” Quiteas said. “Then they must grow up and become accustomed to reality.”

“Your kingdom prospers, your people want for little, your General grows fat for lack of war and your Mage has nothing to do but brew sleeping potions and fret about court invitations from foreign royalty yet this reality calls for such a dour outlook? What, I wonder, will your outlook be in times of strife, famine or war?”

“It is knowledge that strife, famine and war could come upon us at any moment that restrains my lightheartedness. It is not an easy thing to forget that even when the sun is shining, a hundred storms may be brewing beyond the horizon.”

“Yes, I do not think I would smile if I was always worrying about storms beyond the horizon,” Judianna said. “That, or I would learn to love the rain.”

“You already love the rain. Thunder and lightning as well, if I recall correctly.”

“You do,” Judianna said.

As she spoke a slow peal of far-off thunder reverberated. Quiteas looked up, then stood and threw open the windows. Wind whipped the curtains into dancing ghosts of lace and the smell of rain flooded the room. Judianna stood and walked to stand next to him.

“The gods heard us,” she said, her voice soft as she watched lightning flash across the clouds.

“I doubt the gods pay attention to anything I say,” Quiteas said, the light making planes and hollows of his face.

“Would your father wish you to be this miserable because of him?” Judianna asked softly.

“He came back,” Quiteas said, pointing at Masatri. “The elf left with my father, and came back without him. When I ask him if my father is dead, he gives the same answer.”

“He walks the Shadow Road,” Masatri whispered behind Judianna, making her jump.

“He pretends bondage to me, but obeys very little of what I say. He would not leave my father but for death or command. He will not say my father is dead. He cannot lie, so he was told to say that. If my father were truly dead, his allegiance would shift to me and I could make him tell me what happened. But I only hear about the Shadow Road. Until I hear differently, I await my father’s return.”

Judianna knew a little regarding the forest folk and could not fault the prince’s logic, but still, to be unhappy until such a time came…“You must cheer up, Quiteas. Surely there must be something you can smile about.”

“One day, when there is a good reason to smile, I shall do so.”

“And what would be a good reason to smile?” Judianna probed.

Quiteas turned away from her but for once she could see his thoughts plain as day. My father returning.

“You should not pick so lofty a reason to smile,” Judianna said. “Reasons abound all around, and if they are not apparent to you, then you can always make one up. You are the prince, after all.”

Quiteas looked at her for a long time. “You have not changed at all.”

Judianna shrugged. “I suppose I did not become accustomed to reality.”

“No I suppose not.” Quiteas paused. “I have kept you long enough. Doneron will be looking for your return. You must come and visit me more often. I will ask Doneron to send you.” Judianna thought she may have imagined it, but very slowly one corner of his mouth turned up. “That will vex him, I think.”

“He does not enjoy being vexed,” Judianna said, thinking of the Mage’s wish that the prince take up his father’s crown and Quiteas’ refusal.

“No, but he can be quite entertaining.”

Judianna smiled and bowed, making her exit.

“Wait.”

Judianna paused in the doorway.

“And please tell him: I choose Tamburn to be the next Lord Sardaen. Tamburn is a good man. He traveled with my father when he was younger and has kept the Donner Way faithfully.”

“I will tell the Mage. I’m sure he will be pleased to hear your Majesty’s decision.”

Judianna left still imagining the ghost of a smile on Prince Quiteas’ lips.

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